Sam Elliott attends the 91st Oscars Nominees Luncheon in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 2019. (David McNew/Reuters)

In defense of the iconic actor and honorary film critic

Actor Sam Elliott is right to call foul on Jane Campion’s odious The Power of the Dog. After speaking out, on the Marc Maron podcast, against the film’s Academy Award commendations, Elliott was mocked for being “tone-deaf,” the favorite complaint of pundits who fear individual expression. But by pointing out Campion’s inauthenticity, Elliott questioned the judgment of Academy voters and, more significantly, provided the critical thinking that barely exists among reviewers and media shills.

This problem is more serious than The Power of the Dog itself, although it is inseparable from the offense of Campion’s misandrist, blasphemous anti-Western. Elliott’s unvarnished criticism (“piece of shit”) addressed the moral and credibility crisis evident in most contemporary films. Campion’s comeback movie, after nearly 30 years of filmmaking irrelevance, coincides with the shameless resurgence of progressive ideology, especially the credo condemning Western history and gender (critic John Demetry has termed Campion’s film “pseudo-feminist”).

So the hostile counterattacks on Elliott continue the current push against politically incorrect thought and speech. This is tied to the corporate-media trend of dismantling American moral traditions. Elliott objected to a Los Angeles Times advertisement that hailed Campion’s film as “the evisceration of the American myth.” But the blurb came from a New York Times review that praised the film as “a great American story and a dazzling evisceration of one of the country’s foundational myths.”

Elliott earned the authority to challenge both Campion and the New York Times revisionism through his definitive role as The Stranger, a Western archetype, in the cult classic The Big Lebowski, in which he played the cowboy conscience of The Dude (Jeff Bridges). Elliott’s role affectionately poked fun at the inspiration the Coen Brothers got from American Western folklore in an era that no longer revered myths. Campion’s film is vicious — in fact, it represents the attitude of what the Coens satirized as “nihilists.” (“They believe in nothing!”) That ideology is apparent in such trendy cultural cant as “toxic masculinity,” “equity,” “social justice,” all expressed by The Power of the Dog.

Elliott’s criticism of Campion’s inauthenticity (“What does [that woman from] New Zealand know about the American West . . . [Chippendales] dancers who wear bowties and not much else”) was stated with an actor’s sarcasm — more derisive than ideological. But Elliott exposed the ideology that the New York Times printed as cultural dogma:

It’s easy to sum up the movie: It is at once a revisionist Western, a mystery, . . . an exploration of masculinity and femininity, a lament for the limits the world puts on us and those we shoulder until we can no longer bear them. And while it is a tragedy, it is also a liberation story, including for a genre again renewed by a brilliant, unfettered director.

Times reviewer Manohla Dargis pressed all the liberal media buttons, enthused by Campion’s political correctness despite its anti-Americanism and its nastiness — or maybe because of those aspects.

Elliott has helped reveal the Times pseudo-sophisticated cultural politics — dictates that some readers never question. For that, he is honorary film critic of the year. In turn, backlash against Elliott demonstrates the fatuous nature of so much contemporary film-think. Elliott was attacked as “homophobic” by social-media cranks who praised The Power of the Dog, ignorant of how its sexual exploitation actually twists homosexuality into depraved antagonism.

Campion’s shrewdest stunt was to validate the young, murderous, fascist gay character (Kodi Smit-McPhee) — making a venal parable about generational politics. There may have been personal politics in Elliott’s opposition — rather like the deep-voiced, mustachioed, Stetson-wearing authority of The Stranger who has come to define Elliott’s persona. His Big Lebowski icon, complete with all-American “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” background music, might be a risible figure representing American folklore now in disrepute, but “eviscerate” is a totalitarian term intended to divide people and cancel our cultural heritage. At least Elliott’s critical thinking is not malevolent. Sam Elliott abides.


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